Justice Scalia and “choate”

I seem to be on a Supreme Court kick this week. This time it’s Justice Antonin Scalia attempting to school a lawyer on proper usage during oral arguments for Hemi Group v. City of New York held this past Tuesday:

MR. BARNHOUSE: The lawsuit would be...the lawsuit itself would be property, but the...but any recovery would not be property until it became choate, until there was an amount of money assigned to it.
JUSTICE SCALIA: There is no such adjective—I know we have used it, but there is no such adjective as “choate.” There is “inchoate,” but the opposite of “inchoate” is not “choate.”
MR. BARNHOUSE: All right.
JUSTICE SCALIA: Any more than the...I don’t know.
MR. BARNHOUSE: Well, I’m wrong on the...on the…
JUSTICE SCALIA: Exactly. Yes. It’s like “gruntled.”
MR. BARNHOUSE: But I think I am right on the law, Your Honor.
JUSTICE SCALIA: Exactly. “Disgruntled” and the opposite of “disgruntled” is “gruntled.”
MR. BARNHOUSE: Is “gruntled.”

Choate does appear in the OED, which the 2nd edition labels as “erroneous.” (A comment that is sure to disappear when it is updated for the 3rd edition.) Interestingly, the first citation is from another famous Supreme Court justice:

1878 O. W. HOLMES Let. 9 Dec. in Pollock-Holmes Lett. (1942) I. 11 Several of the State Courts have left equally amusing slips in the Reports [...] I have read in a California volume that the wife on marriage acquires an inchoate right of dower which by the death of the husband becomes choate.

There’s also a 1929 citation from Winston Churchill, so the word has some support from heavy hitters in the world of letters. Scalia might reconsider if he knew of these citations; then again, maybe not.

A search of Wordnik.com doesn’t turn up any other dictionary entries, but it does show a number of uses on the interwebs.

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